No Sweat

WHEN WORK BECOMES A DIRTY WORD

In the Satyricon, a Roman novel written sometime around AD 60 (probably at the court of the emperor Nero), there’s a telling scene. Three con artists who are, awkwardly, too hard-up to own a slave are paying a man to haul their luggage on a journey. But he doesn’t turn out to be enthusiastic about the careless use they make of him:

“Do you think you’ve hired a beast of burden or a barge for hauling rocks?” he asked. “It’s a human being you’ve got working for you, not a damn nag. I’m a free man the same way you are, even if my father left me poor.” Not content with rude words, he kept lifting his leg and filling the road with an obscene noise and a nasty stink. Giton laughed at his impudence and farted along at the same volume.

If I had to sum up in one phrase the problems—political, economic, cultural, intellectual—of the Roman Empire in its decadence and instability, I would choose “contempt for work.” Rome’s vast conquests had provided a vast supply of slaves, and when the conquests slowed, slave breeding filled new demand. In this capitalist marketplace (unfettered, except for the participants’ legs), the price of nonslave labor was close to zero and its conditions were appalling, because plenty of slaves were normally available and nearly impossible to compete with: they worked for food and were of course easier to control than hired help. An unemployed mob of Roman citizens, surviving on the dole, was one result.

But because leadership is crucial in the fate of a society, I think the influence of this economic structure on the elite caused the most damage. People with slaves did close to nothing, let alone the hardest work on earth—that of bearing others’ burdens. A matron would be unfamiliar with the kitchen in her house and would not nurse or bathe her own infants. A landowner would seldom be within sight of his farming operations. Slaves as overseers were supposed to deal with the agricultural problems, and slaves as accountants with trade. Writer after monied writer testifies that a country estate is for quiet and relaxation.

Well-to-do people walked less and less, preferring to ride in litters. At home—and sometimes on the road—slaves read to them and took dictation. The wealthy were aware of the bad effects of immobility on their health and sometimes went in for sports: ball games, for example (with slaves picking up stray balls), swimming, and fencing while wearing heavy armor.

It goes without saying that such a lifestyle makes people cruel and arrogant, and makes those who have to pander to them contemptuous and dishonest. But the biggest cost, I think, is stupidity. I was able to experience such a system when I lived in South Africa, where servants are de rigeur even for working-class whites, and where the wealthy can deal with the whole physical world through a sort of point-and-click with other human beings.

Once, when a guest and I were walking down Cape Town’s Milnerton Beach, we found it blocked because a man in a mansion above it had started to build a retaining wall below the high-tide mark. A fifteen-foot-high ridge of sand now lay between the surf and his yard. When I complained later at his doorstep, I wasn’t struck so much by his opinion that the law, his neighbors, the general public, and I could go have sexual intercourse with ourselves; that was the kind of thing I might have heard in the United States. What most impressed me was his final sneer: “So what do you want me to do? Get a shovel and go down there and fix it myself?” Apparently, taking responsibility for what he had caused to be done and doing it himself were equally outrageous possibilities. An endless supply of willing—in fact, desperate—laborers had convinced him that, even though he did nothing but stand on his deck, with an umbrella drink contradicting his manly posture and steely gaze, he could only be the good guy.

The episode had an interesting aftermath. He rapidly outspent the government in the courts, and it eventually abandoned its efforts at an injunction. He finished the retaining wall, narrowing and undermining that section of a famous surfing beach. He apparently went about his business, helicopters, in the same way: simply deciding what to do and telling other people to do it.

When he finally hit a wall, it was a literal one, and he hit it with such force that the wall couldn’t stop him. He commanded that two helicopters be roped together in midair for a movie stunt. From the resulting crash, one blade whizzed away and sliced through a home, sparing the lives of the residents by the grace of God alone.

Afterward, the businessman’s determined defense of the stunt was probably based on sincere empty-headedness. Never having done any work himself, he did not understand how things worked. He had never had the chance to learn about the physical, economic, and moral worlds firsthand through muscles ripping under too heavy a load, or an animal dying from careless treatment; if such things happened around him, they could be blamed on someone else. The gulf between people like him and people who actually do things is, in my view, the main reason for South Africa’s continuing frustrations as it strives to become peaceful and stable.

South African roads are a good illustration of this. A truck bed, piled with furniture, has a man standing on one edge, arched up over the load, fighting to hold it in place while keeping his footing. This human bungee cord isn’t the concern of the furniture owner, who couldn’t imagine being that man. The driver can’t afford to notice any danger, because his job is menial too, though several grades up. It costs far more money than he is worth to make sure his license is real, or that he understands anything about the rules of the road or job safety. (Asked about AIDS prevention for his thousands of long-haul truckers, a tycoon is sanguine: it’s good for the company to make an effort, but this makes no difference in the bottom line; for this “aspirational job,” there are always plenty more men in line to replace the dead.) Private insurance will cover the material costs of an accident. Through the public Road Accident Fund, crooked lawyers will skim most of the compensation that was supposed to go to disabled workers or bereaved families.

A dump truck passes, heaped high with stones about three inches in diameter. Because there’s no tarp or net over them, some are falling off. For the men who loaded them, being at the wheel of a car is only a fantasy, so they did not think of rocks hitting windshields. Anyway, they wouldn’t have offered any opinion about the stability of the heap they were creating, out of a well-grounded fear that the supervisor would laugh and blacklist them. The supervisor doesn’t do much actual supervising, as he is anxious not to have his role in life associated with theirs; the last idea he wants to encourage is that he and they share the work.

Living in the United States again now, I see the elite here moving toward a Roman and South African attitude about labor. This generation of university students, for whom point-and-click is the distinct formative experience, will at best struggle to get beyond their sense of a world in servitude to themselves. What they summoned on Wikipedia, how good they meant the essay to be, how solid their intention was to memorize a verb paradigm, or just how much they want something, how authoritatively their “dreams” order it into being—all of this blocks their view of cause and effect, of things that exist and things that don’t, and of the differences in quality among things that do exist.

This generation of Washington politicians, whatever their tales of rising from working- or middle- or upper-middle-class hardships, doesn’t work either. Citizens are probably deluded in any hope that people who for years have never personally had to write or revise a document or verify a fact, and whose idea of physical work is the sculpting of abs in a luxurious gym, can and will face the workaday demand of taxing privilege to relieve suffering.

It is even more ludicrous to expect an engagement with reality on the part of financiers and corporate executives, who not only are unacquainted with how goods and services come into being but are also trained by “management science” to tout perpetual motion and cold fusion—that is, wealth from no work—and to actually believe that this can be a profitable scam forever.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Around the time the Satyricon was written, an extraordinary man was at war with Greco-Roman irresponsibility. He traveled widely and formed and led communities, but he seems never to have had attendant slaves. He wrote letters by hand—he repeatedly mentions this—and it was probably only ill health that drove him sometimes to dictate. Most astonishingly for an educated man from an important family, he knew a handicraft and kept practicing it (unlike Socrates, who, though a stonemason by training, abandoned his workshop to discuss a more Transcendent Reality with attractive aristocratic boys). Whenever he felt that it would be better for his mission, he supported himself by making tents (a tough, smelly business), rather than asking for the stipend customarily granted to missionaries. He was, of course, Paul of Tarsus.

His material sacrifices bore out his message that God’s love was real, part of ordinary life, and a gift to everyone, no matter how disregarded some may have been before. Working people such as slaves, resident aliens, and independent women seem to have found this message and Paul’s example particularly appealing. Together, the two are the most powerful source of the Western ideals of human rights and equality—which we are failing so stunningly to vindicate now.

Published in the 2012-01-13 issue: 
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Sarah Ruden has published several books, including, most recently, The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible and a new translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

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